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By Kent Paterson

Mexico’s federal election campaign officially kicked off March 30, but the contest arguably began in earnest days earlier when Pope Benedict XVI visited the right-wing stronghold of Guanajuato state. In a story worthy of Mexican surrealism, the daily La Jornada chronicled how all the presidential candidates joined with hundreds of thousands of people in the town of Silao to welcome the leader of an institution that is officially prohibited from participating in politics.

The papal visit was a natural for conservative National Action Party (PAN) hopeful Josefina Vazquez, but the mega-event in the Mexican bible belt city also attracted Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Pena Nieto and his actress wife Angelica Rivera, as well as Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the standard bearer of the nominally leftist but center-drifting Progressive Movement political coalition. Virtually unknown, the National Alliance Party’s Gabriel Quadri rounded out the political quartet.

Lopez Obrador’s onetime arch-enemy, former president Vicente Fox, showed up and extended a handshake to an old foe. A stunned Lopez Obrador returned the greeting, later saying he had no hard feelings from past political rows that brought Mexico to the brink several years ago.

The Pope’s Mexican stop-over on his way to Cuba also stirred clandestine groups. The Temple Knights, an organized crime group that runs a shadow government in some parts of the country, declared a truce in honor of the Pontiff. Less welcoming were the hactivists from Anonymous who disrupted the Vatican’s web pages, and the underground, leftist Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), which sent a missive from “somewhere in Guanajuato” lambasting the Papal state for shielding pedophiles, protecting Spanish fascists and giving political cover to the oppressors of Palestinians. The purpose of the Pope’s visit, the EPR charged, was to hoodwink Catholics into supporting the right as the election season gets underway.

Guanajuato generated tons of prayers, press coverage, praises, and denunciations. Analysts and academics will long dissect the meaning and symbolism of a church-state encounter held in the middle of a power transition. John Ross, the late radical U.S. journalist who covered Mexico for decades with a flair from a cluttered cubbyhole in the Hotel Isabel, and seemingly managed to piss off everyone from the Interior Ministry to the Zapatistas in the process, surely turned in his grave.

Passing away after a battle with cancer last year, Ross colorfully reported on many Mexican elections and wrote a novel, Tonatiuth’s People, about the 1988 elections that cost Cuahtemoc Cardenas the presidency and like, the 2006 contest, was widely denounced as a fraud.

But the 2012 race is very different from previous elections Ross covered. Unlike 2000 when Vicente Fox dethroned the PRI from its one-party rule, there is no easy target for collective venting. And unlike 2006, when a left-right polarization between Lopez Obrador and eventual victor Felipe Calderon turned up the political heat, little burning passion is in the air-at least until now.

Even Chiapas’ Zapatistas, who organized the “Other Campaign” in 2005-2006 in an attempt to channel popular discontent away from the electoral process and into a new national revolutionary program, have withdrawn from the public stage.

A more recent uprising of civil society, the Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity, captured the public’s imagination in 2011 but faces an uncertain future this year.

Unintentionally launched by poet Javier Sicilia after the killing of his son, the movement has drifted from early calls for the re-founding of the Mexican Republic and the promulgation of a new Constitution. Recent urgings by Sicilia for a “blank vote” to protest the political system, drew sharp criticisms from Lopez Obrador’s followers who accused the intellectual of playing into the hands of a power structure intent on preserving the status quo at all costs.

But Lopez Obrador has also changed in 2012. Once known for his strident denunciations of “the mafia that rules Mexico,” he’s toned down his rhetoric and now speaks of reconciliation, love and mutual understanding. Instead of the “The Poor First” slogan of the 2006 presidential campaign, his “Loving Republic” is the catch phrase of 2012.

The former Mexico City mayor still insists on an alternative political project that will attack corruption and privilege, but he’s reframed his political message and forged new alliances with some leading capitalists while gaining the grudging tolerance of others who are disillusioned with Calderon and the PAN.

In an essay, Lopez Obrador blamed Mexico’s ills not only on economic factors but on the loss of cultural, moral and spiritual values as well.

“That’s why our proposal for the rebirth of Mexico has the goal of making progress with justice a reality and, at the same time, providing a way to live based on the family, the creator, nature and the nation,” he wrote.

In 2012, the ground rules are different than in past elections. Media spots have been limited, ostensibly to avoid the type of political dirty war that occurred against Lopez Obrador in 2006, while tighter restrictions have been enacted against posting campaign propaganda in public.

A shortened campaign season was made even shorter by the official commencement of the general campaign on March 30, right after the Pope’s trip and just as Mexico was shutting down for the two-week Holy Week-Easter holiday break, a time when most citizens could give a hoot about politics.

A Mexican Shock Doctrine

Battered by violence, scandal and economic disaster, a good share of the Mexican electorate-perhaps the vast majority-is dazed, confused and exhausted. Veteran political analyst Enrique Semo recently wrote that a shell-shocked public is psychologically numbed and ideologically disarmed by years of media imagery that constantly served up scenes of extreme criminal violence and the state militarization supposedly meant to combat evil.

“The purpose is to create uncertainty of change, the unknown and social activism; protests against the weakening of human rights are ignored,” Semo contended. “The massive complaints of ‘collateral victims’ made public by the movement started by Javier Sicilia are quieted with vague promises…”

As a backdrop to the elections, nearly six years of intensified criminal and state violence have left as many as 60,000 people dead, upwards of 20,000 missing and 250,000 displaced, according to various estimates. Unclaimed corpses fill graves from Ciudad Juarez to Durango to Tepic and beyond. Approximately 20 million people cannot afford the daily basket of basic goods, eight million young people do not study or work and about one-third of the family income of the “better off” segment of the population goes towards paying off debts, according to media reports.

The National Institute of Geography, Informatics and Statistics recently reported that nearly one-third of the workforce labors in precarious, informal conditions with no pension plan.

Yet life has never been better for the one percent. Forbes listed 11 Mexicans on its most recent billionaires’ list, including Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man with a cool $69 billion.

As Mexico undergoes another political transition, it’s worth re-examining two fundamental measurements of a democratic society: press freedom and respect for human rights. On the first score, the situation is grim with 80 journalists murdered and 14 others disappeared in the last 12 years, according to Reporters without Borders. On the second count, the ability of civil society to express its voice, the situation is likewise extremely risky.

Outspoken activists like Chihuahua mother Marisela Escobedo or Oaxaca indigenous leader Bety Carino have been assassinated along with numerous others during the last six years. Ciudad Juarez women’s activist Cipriana Jurado and Guerrero forest defender Rodolfo Montiel have received political asylum in the U.S, and reminiscent of the days of the Flores Magon brothers who struggled from abroad against the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz more than one hundred years ago, an organization, Mexicans in Exile, has been formed.

Impunity prevails in human rights violations, such as those documented in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights cases that held the Mexican state responsible for the murders of women in Ciudad Juarez and the disappearance of Guerrero activist Rosendo Radilla in1974.

Last month’s passing of former Mexican security chief Miguel Nazar Haro, widely implicated in the torture and disappearance of suspected guerrillas and dissidents during the 1970s Dirty War, epitomized the triumph of impunity. Washington-trained and a reputed CIA asset, Nazar Haro escaped U.S. prosecution connected to a stolen car ring more than 20 years ago, and wiggled out of a brief arrest during the Fox administration for his alleged crimes. He once told an interviewer that the grim reaper would beat his legal pursuers. He was proven correct.

Will Marginalized Groups Have a Voice?

Theoretically, the 2012 elections present an opportunity for the marginalized groups of Mexican society to gain greater clout. What are the prospects for migrants, youth and women?

For the second time, Mexican expatriates will be allowed to cast ballots for president from abroad. Although nearly four million potential voters were identified as eligible in 2012, only 61,314 met the registration deadline. The Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) had vowed to significantly increase the number of migrant voters from 2006’s poor showing, but this year’s final voter roll barely surpassed last election’s list of 56,749 voters.

In a full-page statement published in Los Angeles’ La Opinion newspaper, individuals associated with the Frente Civico Zacatecano, Alianza Bi-nacional Braceroproa, Hermanadad Mexicana Nacional and other migrant organizations demanded the formation of an advisory council to ensure that the Mexican government takes the voice of their countrymen abroad seriously in the future. Similar criticisms were heard back in 2006, but six years later migrants were again largely excluded from the elections.

According to the Mexico City-based Cimac women’s news service, nearly one-third of the 78,881,795 registered voters are young people aged 18-29. Millions of young people can vote for the first time this year; most of the voters under thirty recall very little if anything of the long rule of the PRI. Instead, many are turned off by politics in general.

Correspondingly, the parties are employing creative methods to snare the youth vote. In Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, the campaign of PRD mayoral primary candidate Jorge Allec staged an all-day beach bash for youth that featured beauty contests, a pig chase, hip-hop performances and a soccer match. Cash prizes, restaurant passes and a swimming-with dolphins experience were offered to winners. Campaign coordinator Adrian Maciel assessed the turn-out as “excellent,” adding that more youth participation needed to be encouraged.

Making up 51.86 percent of registered voters, women could decide the elections, a fact not lost on the rightist PAN, which postulated Josefina Vazquez Mota for president and anti-crime activist Isabel Miranda Wallace for Mexico City mayor, a post regarded by many as the country’s second most-powerful political office. Nonetheless, the two politicians represent a party that seeks to constitutionally define life as beginning at conception; currently, 17 Mexican states criminalize abortion.

Though the involvement of women in politics has increased significantly in recent decades, they still face an uphill battle. A clash over the 2007 political reform that mandates political parties follow a 60-40 gender formula for assigning congressional candidacies illustrated how far women still have to go in the old male world of politics.

Dismayed by the candidate selection process, thousands of women affiliated with Lopez Obrador’s Progressive Movement coalition pressed the member parties for better shots at winning congressional seats. Largely kept out of the public limelight, the rebellion reached the ears of the IFE.

As the deadline for registering candidates loomed last month, the IFE sternly warned all the political parties-with the exception of National Alliance- that they had not met the gender quota. The federal election overseer then threatened the parties with sanctions and even the de-registration of candidates if they did not comply with the law. Last-minute grumbling, negotiating and scrambling produced new candidate lists, allowing the game to resume.

Feminist writer Marta Lamas praised the IFE for its decisive action, arguing that the gender quota was a step in the right direction. “We only want what is ours,” Lamas wrote. “We’re half the population.” Gender parity in politics, she continued, would facilitate gender equality at home, at school and at work, helping lay the foundation for a “more equal social order.”

Operations Tamale, Taco and Tapping

While the foreign press focuses on Mexico City and the splashy political events unfolding in the capital city, much of the action is taking place in the states, in places like Guerrero where internal revolts over candidate selections threaten to fracture Lopez Obrador’s coalition.

Along with Guerrero, other crucial battlegrounds will be in the states of Mexico, Jalisco, Veracruz, Nuevo Leon, Puebla, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Michoacan. In several of the entities-Mexico City, Mexico and Jalisco-election authorities are experimenting with electronic voting machines for use in parallel state contests.

In many cases, the battleground states are precisely where destabilizing criminal violence is intense. It’s perhaps no accident that a spate of kidnappings, extortions and other forms of pressure against candidates or potential candidates has been reported in some of the politically strategic zones in recent weeks. Other alarm bells are ringing. For example, the reports of vote-buying and state political support in the PAN presidential primary that netted the victory of Josefina Vazquez Mota, who had served in both the Fox and Calderon administrations.

Vazquez Mota and members of the lower house of Congress were reportedly the objects of telephone and internet espionage this year. Other scandals exposing old political practices now officially frowned down upon but apparently still quite alive include January’s food poisoning of more than 700 indigenous residents of Guerrero, who were transported en masse to a PRI primary rally only to fall ill after eating tacos, and the federal detention of two Veracruz state employees who were found in an airport with two million dollars in cash stuffed in suitcases. In the employees’ defense, the PRI state government claimed the money was meant to pay for a tamale festival.

The possible injection of narco-money into political campaigns is a hot issue this year. While the parties have pledged to run clean campaigns, there is no real way to stop behind-the-scenes vote-buying, bribes and pay-offs to media for favorable reportage. The convergence of state elections with the federal contests also complicates the tracking of money, since campaign events overlap and the two separately administered but ultimately linked races create their own political dynamics. If fraud occurs in 2012, it is likely to happen before election day when everyone is looking the other way.

Many polls still give the presidency to longtime frontrunner Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI. While numerous elements make this election more volatile and unpredictable than at first glance, the former governor of Mexico state could well become Mexico’s next president, especially if voter turn-out is low and/or the critical women and youth voting blocs swing his way.

Long groomed by Mexico’s two big television networks for the nation’s top job by heavy dosages of subtle and not-so-subtle coverage, Pena Nieto could be the ultimate beneficiary of this year’s officially truncated campaign which, ironically, came about because of citizen complaints over lavish spending and exaggerated campaign periods. But in a mediated age, it remains to be seen if the upcoming debates between the presidential candidates will change the race. The first showdown is scheduled for May 6.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwest of the United States, Mexico, and Latin America. He collaborates as an analyst for the Americas Program.